City Of Signs


The first great innovation of the renaissance to transform popular culture was the development of a popular literature made possible by the advent of printing in England in the mid 15th century. Although the common people were mostly illiterate, the ability amongst the population to read though unable to write is often underestimated. 1 The earliest forms of popular literature in the 16th century were :

Broadsides -
One sided sheets which typically bore the lyrics of a ballad intended to be sung, and were often sold by travelling vendors who would sing for custom at fairs and carnivals. Broadsides could also be adverts, proclamations, religious tracts, prophecies or astrological almanacs.

Jestbooks -
Collections of comic tales, satires, riddles and jokes featuring lustful clergy, cuckolded husbands and unfaithful wives. Sometimes the comic tales were based around the adventures of a central comic character such as Hobson, Scoggin or the English version of the European Till Eulenspiegel , the folk hero prankster Howleglas who in his wit and absurdity opposed the power of the innkeeper, the craftsmen, the masters and the clergy. Howleglas is of that tradition that later produced Grimaldi, Dan Leno, Chaplin and Jim Carey.

Narratives -
Mediaeval romances, Renaissance fiction (Boccaccio,
Chaucer etc.), and narratives concerning the lives of renowned rogues and criminals. 2

Mediaeval popular literature was pivotal to the literary developments of the late Renaissance, it was a key influence in the development of what Bahktin terms the 'Grotesque Realism' of Rabelais, Shakespeare, and critically Cervantes whose Don Quixote of 1605 is widely cited as the first 'novel'. 3

By the mid 17th century popular literature had become a thriving culture of broadsides, paper covered books and pamphlets sold by the thousands on street stalls and hawked by itinerant vendors and ballad mongers. This unofficial literature dealt in songs and stories of love and romance, adultery, violent crime, murder, witchcraft, devil worship, monsters, human freaks, miraculous events and bizarre intrigues. Like the 20th century tabloid press and true crime magazines these ballads and tales were a mixture of fact, fiction and
myth . 4 Aside from sensational tales, handbills and almanacs, there were also autobiographies by popular writers and personalities, and political and religious tracts, amongst which would be the tracts of the Diggers and the Ranters of the English revolution.

The advent of mass printing also expanded popular visual culture; broadsides and pamphlets were frequently illustrated with woodcuts, and text could be graphically composed. Text and image were often combined in a variety of graphic forms; a single framed image could be overlayed with text designating the meaning of the various image parts, a series of discreet images with panels of text could depict separate aspects of a theme or a narrative could be depicted in discreet frames happening in a cause and effect succession. By the 16th century in continental Europe, and by the end of the 17th century in England there were broadsides which had developed all the essential formal techniques of the comic strip : a narrative would be told by a series of discreet framed images, the temporal action of the narrative was constructed as a montage from frame to frame and the speech of characters in the narrative was indicated by banners, speech clouds or bubbles issuing from their mouths. 5

In trade, printed posters and handbills began to compete with the traditional culture of alehouse and shop signs. Alehouse signs had developed out of the tradition of monastic hospices ( the Angel, the Mitre etc.) and from the traditional garland of leaves or hops used to indicate an alehouse (the Hoop, the Bull and Bush etc.).6 Shop signs could be traditional symbols of a trade or trade guild, heraldic devices or simply symbolic addresses such as the sign of the 'Sun in Splendour' or the sign of the 'The Moon'. Before doors were numbered and since the majority of the population of the expanding urban centres were illiterate, the use of signs for businesses in Renaissance England was an absolute necessity. Seventeenth Century London was a city of signs, elaborate painted boards, grotesque carved animals, fabulous comic faces, vast sculpted hats, shoes, gloves, keys , work tools and other merchandise which hung or projected into the street.

An anonymous Puritan tract of 1641 provides a vivid description of Bartholomew Fair in the mid 17th century :

'It is remarkable and worth your observation to behold and hear the strange sights and confused noises in the fair. Here a knave in a Fool's coat with a trumpet sounding, or on a drum beating, invites you and would fain persuade you to see his puppets; there a rogue like a wild woodman, or in an antick shape like an Incubus, desires your company to view his motion; on the other side Hocus pocus with three yards of tape or ribbon in's hand, showing his art of Legerdemain to the admiration and astonishment of a company of cockoloaches. Amongst these you shall see a grey goose cap, (as wise as the rest), with a what do you lack in his mouth, stand in his boothe, shaking his rattle, or scraping a fiddle, with which children are so taken, that they presentlie cry out for these fopperies: and all these together make such a distracted noise, that you would thinck Babell were not comparable to it.' 7

A 'motion' was a puppet show and "What do you lack !" was the cry of the street sellers.

In 1614 Ben Jonson, acclaimed by his contemporaries to be the finest playwright of his age, wrote his carnival satire 'Bartholomew Fair' which takes as its action a day at Bartholomew in which a puritan family and a magistrate are outwitted and eventually charmed by the rogues and players of the fair. A principal character is Nightingale a ballad seller who sings for custom:

' Ballads ! ballads ! fine new ballads: Hear for your love or your money !
A delicate ballad o' The Ferret and the Coney'
' The Preservative again the Punks ' evil.'
Another of ' Goose-green Starch and the Devil. '
'A Dozen of Divine Points' and the 'Godly Garters'.
' The Fairing of Good Counsel' , of an ell and three quarters.
What is't you buy ?
' The Windmill blown down by a whitches fart!'
Or ' Saint George, that O! did break the dragon's heart !'
8


The play was performed to great acclaim in a booth at the fair to an audience who could recognise themselves amongst the characters, and there is even a puppet show within the play which translates the ancient classic heroes of Greece into the common folk of the Thames. 9

The development of mass printing effected popular culture in two critical areas, firstly it initiated the industrialisation and commodification of the popular and secondly whilst printing expanded the popular culture of the Renaissance it also began a process of limiting and fixing cultural forms which were previously part of an improvised and oral tradition. Anonymous songs, stories and jokes which before printing were constantly modified and hybridised as they passed amongst the people became fixed in printing to a written authentic text.10

In 'Carnival and Theatre' (1985) Michael D. Bristol links the initiation of the suppression of popular culture to the development of the author and the rise of the professional theatre in the 16th and early 17th century. 11 The development of the permanent and professional theatres of Renaissance London from the temporary carnival theatres of the market place and the Holy Day took place during a period of sustained attack upon popular culture by both the State and by Puritan reformers. In an age where a new social mobility began to threaten the mediaeval hierarchy and the country was riven with religious conflict and civil insurrection the theatre was viewed by the ruling class as a potential threat to the social order. Bristol cites Phillip Stubbes' ' The Anatomie of Abuses' (1583) as a key document of Puritan opposition to the theatre. Stubbes' denounces plays and players as a subversion of the social hierarchy, as sacrilegious of the divine word of God and as fraudulent dissembling. The theatre that Stubbes' denounces is the theatre of the carnival :

'Anatomie of Abuses appeared at a time when there was considerable theatrical activity but relatively little dramatic literature. In Stubbes's view, 'playing' is most closely connected with such popular festive customs as wakes, maypoles and Lords of Misrule; it has relatively little to do with literature. The denunciation of theatre addresses a situation in which playing has precedence over serious writing. The players are not 'actors' - they are the immediate creators of the performances and interludes. Their creativity relies on their capacity to extemporise dramatic texts out of 'secondhand' or 'used' plays combined with other materials, including literary and folk narrative, by their own improvisatory skill. This is a form of creativity that favours contingent and ephemeral manifestations over the finished text or work of art. The resulting aesthetics of heterogeneity, crude sensation and parodic mimicry create a situation of maximum-intellectual and affective openness, but minimum accountability. In Stubbes's view, the player is able to say forbidden things with impunity, and only one political and administrative response to this is possible - the complete abolition of playing and the proscription of players. ' 12

For its duration the carnival play drops out of the hierarchy of the feudal state, the common players take on the guises and regalia of nobility or even divinity, and yet they also ambivalently remain themselves, free to shift their identity between the real and the mimetic, this is the 'play '. The play also drops out of time, it resists the feudal time of productive labour and threatens the authority of history for it brings the past into the present. There is no unified authority which controls the meaning of the play, the carnival play is ephemeral and unfinished, it is created by the diverse performances of the players and the shared culture of the audience. As the carnival theatre became established in permanent playhouses so its subversive potential intensified for it was no longer contained by the official sanction of the feudal calender or the social authority of the mediaeval guilds. The playhouse became the site of a utopian collective and promiscuous transgression and hybridisation of culture, a temporary autonomous zone in which classical learning, the grotesque, poetry, slapstick, tragedy, comedy, mime and the real interact and hybridise. 13

Harassed by attack and repression but driven by the new secular power of capitalism the playhouses of the early 17th century began to negotiate a new legitimacy by adopting the conditions of literature. A process was initiated in which the anonymous improvisational collectivity of carnival theatre was replaced by the individual author and the authority of a text corresponding to the educational and moral model of literature. Bristol identifies Ben Jonson as a key figure in this process and 'Bartholomew Fair' as an articulation of it, for it is in 'Bartholomew Fair' that Jonson as the author strikes a contract with the audience: if they are silent, motionless, patient, tolerant and steadfast and if they do not attempt to interpret his characters and drama as a cipher for actual people or events, then Jonson in return agrees as the author to provide an entertainment which is not the fair itself but which is an authorised version of the fair. The seal of this contract is the price of admission. 14
Jonson was also a pioneer in the new industry of publishing for in 1616 he published The Workes of Benjamin Jonson the first collected works of an English playwright.
With an authoritative text the author becomes accountable to the state and subject to the law, but they also become the individual master and owner of the text and so able to sell their text as a commodity. The author becomes the individual creator of the play and the players become mere servants who act out the text.

'
The integration of literary and verbal creativity into more general forms of ownership and delegation of authority is the enabling act for the professionalization of creativity and its legitimation as a means of livelihood. This individualization of artistic production is the basis for the legitimation of the theatre. The author is defined as the owner of his text and thus as an individual who might be punished or subjected to litigation. The audience is decomposed into private individuals who appreciate a text without interpreting it; the actor is an artificial person whose words originate from and are delegated by a well-defined centre of authority. In this allocation of functions, there is no one left who can say forbidden things with impunity, and the dangers of an ambiguously allocated or dispersed authority are safely contained.' 15

Bristol follows Bahktin in considering carnival as pivotal in the generation of Renaissance culture. It is the collective hybrid carnival theatre that is articulated in the great works of Renaissance theatre, but the birth of the great authors initiates the historic exclusion of the carnival from the theatre. However this exclusion was only ever partially successful and as we shall see, it was not achieved without violence.